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Mission Accomplished - Part 1

Urumqi, China

Time for another update!

I'm back in Urumqi after spending the last 4 days in Kanas Lake, and I gotta say it was well worth the 11 hour bus ride each way!

First, a little bit about Urumqi. It is the capital of Xinjiang province and the farthest place from an ocean in the world, but the weather was mild during my stay, and the best weather I've seen since arriving in China. As some of you may have heard, ethnic unrest broke out last July (by the Uighurs who have attempted to established a Uighurstan on several occasions). The city is a bit tense with the one year anniversary coming up, and occasionally you'd see military police in full gear patrolling the streets, and I was told there were numerous police and agents in civilian cloth as well. (I hope this get thru the Great Firewall). Tourism is big business here but obviously has been hurt by the event last year, and while tourists have returned in moderate quantity, it's going to take 2-3 years to return to 'normal'. Other than the sighting of military police, I felt very safe in the city where one can easily mistaken it for New York, with its various ethnic groups, juxtaposition of old and new, fashionabe young people with rainbow color hair and tats, and signs in multiple languages. Because it had only recently being developed, the city looks new and well planned compared to Xi'an (well, the City Center area) and Lanzhou (more on that in the next post).

Business hour starts at 10am here and goes to 8pm, mostly due to there being only one time zone in the entire country, and Urumqi is in the northwest corner thousands of miles from Beijing. I only stayed one night before joining a group tour for Kanas Lake near the border with Russia, Mongolia, and Kazastan (the northern most point of China, and individuals are barred from travelling there alone). Travelling in Xinjiang can be treacherous, with the unpredictable weather and infrastructure that's still being built. Flood is common and unpredictable sand storms can reduce visibility to zero. In the winter planes often have to be diverted to Dunhuang (15 hour train ride away) due to low visibility and -20 degree weather. Therefore a train station and airport are being built in Turpan (2.5 hours away). I got a crash course on the unpredictable weather on the way to Kanas Lake, when in a 4-hour span we experienced summer (80 degree), to piercing wind, to rain and sleet, and back to mild (a pleasant 67 degree). The tour guide explained the differences between various minority groups, but since I wasn't here for the history lesson, I paid no attention and just enjoyed the vast, open scenery comprised of endless grasslands. Along the way one can often spot yurts (used by Kazaks, who are still nomadic) and their herds grazing without a care in the world.

I was initially apprehensive about my fellow travellers - they were all ethnic Chinese from various parts of the country, and mostly retired. I thought to myself this is going to be a long and difficult trip. However, my worries were soon proven unnecessary. My goodness, Chinese people are friendly. I guess I had forgotten what being Chinese is all about. They made me feel like family, offering me food and drinks on the bus, and at each meal break they would take turns inviting me to eat with them at their tables. They were amazed by my wearing shorts on the trip, and insisted that I change into something warmer so as not to catch a cold. I graciously told them I'm used to it and so instead they offered me hot tea to stay warm. There were absolutely no pretense and I can tell you definitively that it wasn't because I'm a foreigner, for amongst themselves, total strangers when we first got on the tour bus, they exhibited the same warmness toward each other, and in no time the whole group was like one huge family. I must say that I was deeply moved, and you all know that I'm dead inside. :)

Kanas Lake. What can I say about Kanas Lake? In one word, Amazing. In three words, Paradise on Earth. It is one of few remaining places on earth that's uncontaminated due to its late discovery and remote location, and the Chinese gov't is doing what it can to reduce the tourism impact by limiting the number of visitor permits per year, and controlling the development of hotels outside the park entrance (none inside). The accommodations were basic, but roughing it in my basement hotel room with 3 others and communal restroom (no bath) is just part of the charm. The fresh air and beautiful scenery made the fact that I wore the same cloth for 3 days and hadn't showered in 2 a non-issue. Settlement in the park is prohibited except for the minority group Tuvas - a branch of Mongols, and they've adapted to combining their traditional ways of life with tourism economy - imagine, if you will, Indian reservations open for tourism, offering overnight stay in tents, horseback riding, archery, canoeing...etc. I was told the only way to obtain permission to live in the park is to marry a Tuva girl. Tempting, very tempting.

We were lucky that the weather cooperated during our visit. Not that it was sunny the entire time, but in fact, it rained overnight, which created beautiful views the next day. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so I'll let the pictures do the talking.

NOTE: I think there's a limit on how many pictures I can post on this blog, so I'll post them on my Flickr account (http://www.flickr.com/photos/24338382@N06/sets/) as soon as I get to Lhasa. You have to, no, you MUST see the pictures from Kanas Lake.

After a most satisfying trip I was back in Urumqi for one more night. Back in the civilization made me crave for the quiet and fresh air of the place I just left 11 hours ago. However, retreating to a place like Kanas is more of a dream than reality. While their wooden huts were equipped with solar panel, satellite TV, and cell phone connection was readily available, it's a fact that evolution is a one-way trajectory, and now that I'm back in the big city, I do appreciate the hot shower, comfortable bed, and KFC next door. I slept with the windows open and sound of the city abuzzing, something I hadn't experience in years, and this is where I belong.

Couple of things to add:

1) Uighur girls are HOT! (Eurasian features, beautiful figures)

2) The Bazaar in Urumqi is even bigger than the one in Istanbul, and one could find everything there (Shoe City, Carpet Town, Garment and Jewelery Districts, Spice Alleys, cell phones, computers, and things I can't even name). I only visited what's above ground due to limited time, and the underground section apparently spans 20 city blocks!

3) DO NOT bargain unless you plan to buy. If you bargain, then you MUST buy, or blood will be shed.

With the Silk Road portion of my trip completed, now it is onto the most difficult part of my travel - a 20 hour train ride from Urumqi to Lanzhou (tracing my way back the Hexi Corridor), then 3 hour bus ride to Xining, followed by a 25 hour train ride to Lhasa. You'll know if I survive the trip in a few days!

permalink written by  Chihyau on July 1, 2010 from Urumqi, China
from the travel blog: Backpacking in China
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I must say I am genuinely enjoying your blog. Your trip sounds fab.

permalink written by  Bianca s on July 5, 2010

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Welcome to my blog!

Many of you have heard me wax poetic about the open plains and the nomadic life of Mongolia. Well, I'm finally getting off the couch and trekking to the edge of the world in search of my private Shangri-la.

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